When I first came on the scene in the beginning stages of dating my now-husband, I had very little concept as to how dating a single father and becoming a stepmom would ultimately change my life.
The biological mother of my now-stepson didn’t even acknowledge my presence the first time we were in the same room.
It all felt very awkward, to say the least. Any woman who has been in this kind of situation knows exactly how this feels. The uncomfortable, sinking feeling in your stomach partnered with literally not knowing what to say or do.
My perception of the biological mother and her initial chilliness towards me didn’t really phase me much at the time. I honestly just thought she was being intentionally rude or resentful of me as the ‘new girlfriend’.
I was still in the thrushes of new love and we were having fun. Parenting — or stepparenting — wasn’t on my mind much at all.
My now-husband was indeed a hard-working single dad and had his then 6-year-old son with him most of the time. I lived in a different city altogether and worked a lot, so on my weekends, I would spend two fun-filled days with him and his son, going on adventures and road-trips.
His son took an instant liking to me which was great — but I still wasn’t in any kind of parenting mode with him. He was adorable and I was very fond of him but I was used to being a single working woman — free of any parenting responsibilities.
It’s been over a decade since that time and I am now a full-time stepmom to a teenager. My love for him has blossomed into what can only be described as a mother’s love.
I won’t go into detail here about people’s personal issues or why my husband has always had full custody of his son, but the mother/son relationship between my stepson and his biological mother has always had some serious fractures and she’s had difficulty showing up for her son emotionally.
It was heartbreaking to watch this complicated and often painful mother/son relationship over the years and it only made me more protective of this sweet, good-natured child whom I have lived with and cared for throughout a good portion of my life now.
As the determined person I am, in the beginning, I stepped up, stepped in, and took on being a stepmom to the best of my ability.
My stepson’s biological mother became more receptive to me for a time and — looking back — it was probably a relief for her that I was doing so much.
But I really had my work cut out for me in those early years.
Unfortunately, after a couple of years, I was running myself ragged trying to do it all, schedule it all, and trying to please everyone except for me. I became the co-parenting middle-woman and mediator.
My very close relationship with my stepson drove me to want to produce the best outcome for him as far as getting more time with his mother and making sure his emotional needs were met.
I was running on a people-pleasing treadmill set to the highest level.
A few years in, I gave birth to my daughter so being the primary person dealing with the biological mother instead of asking my husband for help while caring for my daughter, combined with the biological mother’s behavior towards my stepchild becoming more unstable, I was constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
I ended up taking on so many responsibilities for my stepchild on behalf of an often absent biological mother that she simply became accustomed to me just taking over and really just went on about her life leaving it all up to me.
But I still said nothing.
My controlling personality and organized manner served others well but ultimately drained me.
So I had to learn who I was and what my role would ultimately be. Where do I step in and where do I draw the line? How much do I give and when is it too much?
I became resentful of never getting asked if I needed help. But at the same time, I never asked for help.
I started resenting my husband for not dealing with the biological mother’s issues more as they affected my stepson. And he had no idea exactly how burnt out I was. He was out working and I was managing the household — hanging on by a thread.
I was trying to repair emotional damage done to a child who missed their mother and I worked hard to try and facilitate a relationship between them because I thought that was the right thing to do.
I thought my role as a stepmom was to heal. To heal someone else’s problems and fix everything.
I eventually learned the hard way that this ‘fixer’ mentality was not sustainable or healthy.
Over time, as I became more focused on my own mental health, the relationship between myself and the biological mother disintegrated as I started to let go of the responsibilities I had taken upon myself and started trying to delegate more parenting accountability back to her.
I decided that my role as a stepmother was to be a parent and a guardian but not to be the ‘be-all-end-all’. More importantly, I decided that my role meant nurturing myself and becoming the best version of me in order to lead by example not only for my stepchild but also for my biological child.
But no matter how much time I had sacrificed in trying to the ‘perfect’ stepmom who never stepped on anyone’s toes, it didn’t really make much difference in other people’s behavior in the long run.
You simply cannot control what other people think and do, which seems obvious enough but, quite often, we forget this.
I was doing so much work, so much damage control, and taking on so many burdens that were not my responsibility that bitterness and resentment grew deep inside of me.
However, once I started focusing more on what made me happy instead of what would make everyone else happy, that bitterness slowly started to fade and I gradually started to care less and less about what credit I did or didn’t get for doing all of the ‘mom things’.
So my advice to any stepmom out there who is going through this exact same thing is to STEP BACK and figure out the things you’re doing that are really useful and productive versus the things you are doing just to appease others and not to upset others.
I have learned that everyone is responsible for their own happiness and you can’t create that for them.
Now, years later and a lot of events later, my relationship with my stepchild is so much better than I could have ever wished for. I have done things in my own life that I am proud of and I have my own life besides being a stepmom, a mom, and a wife that make me happy.
The happier I’ve become within myself the better parent I’ve become to both of the children, biological or not.
A lot has changed in my role as a stepmom over the years and my responsibilities are indeed significant. But I don’t feel that same resentment about the responsibilities anymore because I have learned how to pace myself and how to say when I need a break.
I still get overwhelmed all the time. I still get sucked into the drama which any parenting role — not just stepparenting — can bring.
My stepchild is a teenager now and teenagers are not easy but, thankfully, I have learned to love myself enough to know better. To know when my own emotional stability is being compromised at the hands of myself or someone else and to know when to put up a boundary even if it’s uncomfortable.
I’m still learning. I’m still evolving. But I’m so much better than I was before.
Michelle Zunter is a Canadian-turned-American living, loving, & writing in California. You can read Michelle’s lifestyle blogs about love, sex, relationships, marriage, divorce, parenting, step-parenting & much more at The Pondering Nook. You can also listen to Michelle co-hosting at The Broad’s Way Podcast discussing similar topics.